CELEBRATE WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH
Although women have made great contributions to society, science, government and the arts since the dawn of time, it was not until the establishment of WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH, now celebrated each March, that their achievements have been officially and publicly recognized.
Molly Williams, an African-American woman whose legendary service battling a New York City blaze in 1818 is the basis of my children’s book, MOLLY BY GOLLY! THE LEGEND OF MOLLY WILLIAMS, AMERICA’S FIRST FEMALE FIREFIGHTER, is one such lady. But she is not the only wonderful heroine I discovered in my research on female fire fighters. Another was Lillie Hitchcock Coit, one of the most colorful members of San Francisco’s high society in the mid-1800’s who was also a member of the Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5.
From childhood, little Lillie was fascinated by the excitement of fighting fire and the red-shirted heroes in helmets who raced to the scene to do battle. At age 15, on her way home from school, Lillie saw a short-manned crew of “Knickerbocker’ men struggling to get an engine up steep Telegraph Hill to fight a fire. In those days, rival fire companies raced one another to be the first to arrive at a fire, and it looked as if Manhattan No. 2 and Howard No. 3 might take their bragging rights as the fastest company in the city.
Impulsively, Lillie tossed her books to the ground, took a vacant place on the engine rope and, like Molly Williams did thirty years earlier in NYC, ran to an empty place on the engine rope, and pulled, reportedly crying, “Come on…everybody pull and we’ll beat’em!”
Which they did. Other bystanders jumped on the rope, and pulled. Knicerbocker No. 5 went up the slope like a red streak and got first water on the fire. From that day on, Lillie’s parents had a hard time trying to keep their daughter from dashing away every time an alarm was sounded. Or atop Knickerbocker No. 5’s engine in a gala parade, decked in flowers and flags. Her enthusiastic support was such that on October 3, 1863, she was elected an honorary member of the Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5.
As she grew older, she gave up following the engine, but her devotion to “the Knickerbocker Five” stayed strong. She always wore the gold medallion given to her with her honorary membership, along with other ornaments and costumes bearing the number 5. She even had had the number 5 stitched on her undergarments.
In the end, she became the champion of all the firemen in her city. When a member of any fire engine company fell ill, or was killed in the line of duty, Lillie was there to help. As thanks, San Francisco erected the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill in memory of her unwavering support as well as her own legendary firefighting adventure.
If Lillie were with us today, I think she’d be proud to know that “courage in a uniform” (as she liked to describe her firefighters) can be worn by both men AND women. She, along with Molly Williams and other female firefighters, continue to remind us of the place women have played in American history.